From the Land of Green Ghosts, a memoir by a member of a Padaung — a small Burmese hill tribe best known for the elongated necks and neck rings of its “giraffe” women until recently — is extraordinary not only in content but in its writing. As did the painfully moving Catfish and Mandala, it won the Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction.* I’ve been rereading two of the most generally recognized great novels of the twentieth century (Invisible Man, The Master and Margarita, both focusing on pressures (of American racism and the Stalinist state apparatus) on sensitive souls. I did not feel any less mastery of form or language in reading Pascal Khoo Thwe‘s memoir and would be prepared to argue that it has no superfluous material, unlike both of those canonized classics.
One resemblance to those other two books is that From the Land of Green Ghosts seems to contain several books. First, there is a “native ethnography” in which Thwe recalls growing up the grandson of a Padaung headman/chief. Their village, Phekhon, converted to Catholicism in 1930, though continuing to revere Lord Buddha, to fear nature spirits (nats) and ghosts, and maintaining many animistic and shamanistic beliefs and practices. For instance, the rite of baptism does not occur until various traditional ways of warding off evil spirits are invoked. Thwe, born in 1967, is a devout Catholic who vividly illustrates from his own and his family’s experience a syncretism of beliefs. For instance, the gratitude to him of owls (for one of their number he saved as a child) is expressed in warnings from owls at several critical junctures.
There are many critical junctures. Despite all the catastrophes of “the Burmese way to socialism” (a road that led from Burma being one of the most prosperous parts of Asia to impoverishment like that of North Korea) and the repression of the military government of Ne Win and his successors, Khoo Thwe led a charmed life of sorts. After the 1988 student demonstrations (in which he participated as a University of Mandalay student), the love of his life was disappeared (after earlier serial rape as part of her interrogation). He returned home and made speeches against the repression, barely escaping one set of assassins by fleeing his childhood home, and another that crossed the border into Thailand to eliminate his voice (after it had been broadcast on BBC). In between, a group of students of which he was a part was lost in the jungle, and he was under heavy fire in several battles between the Burmese army and the Karen State “rebels” who took in the refugee students. He was struck by several bullets, He also survived a poisonous snake bites and severe malaria, which he matter-of-factly describes.
After the relatively idyllic tribal childhood (eating wasps, breaking cobras’ spines, etc.), Thwe descended to the plains where the ethnic majority (Burman, considered “green ghosts” by the Padaung) lived. Semi-educated martinets professed government propaganda, but knew little about their supposed subject and the students had little material to study. (Khoo Thwe wanted to study English literature, inspired by reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. Hundreds of students shared one copy each of two books in English: The Old Man and the Sea and Good-bye, Mr. Chips.) Students had to take down everything teachers said, memorize what was often nonsense, and never question or debate whatever authorities (including teachers) said.
A fervent quest for education is one important strand of the story. Khoo Thwe becomes the first Padaung to study English at a university and eventually becomes the first student from Burma to earn a degree in English literature from Cambridge University. His grandfather much preferred British to Japanese or Burman masters, and Khoo Thwe reflects that “perhaps those of us who were from the minority peoples had a special desire to take a subject that helped us escape from Burman domination” (in addition to providing a possible key to unlock the mysteries of the West).
It was as a sub-waiter in a Mandalay Chinese restaurant that his interest in Joyce was discovered by some foreign visitors, who related this oddity to Cambridge don Dr. John Casey, who searched out the restaurant and eventually sponsored Khoo Thwe out of Thailand and into the rigorous Cambridge program. (Casey also managed to get Thwe installed in the British Embassy in Bangkok while arrangements were made. This provides a particularly comic interval. Khoo Thwe has a keen eye for absurdity amid harrowing dangers but also for absurdities amidst unaccustomed luxury.)
As desperate as Thwe was for education and access to literature, he had considerable survivor guilt along with much anguish at abandoning his friends fighting with the Karen against the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s army (which nullified the 1991 election in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was and remained for another decade under house arrest, won 80 percent of the contested seats in a parliamentary election in 1991). He chides himself for a “terrible egotism” in leaving (though by writing this book of testimony and work with Prospect Burma, he continues to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma).
While living and fighting with the Karen soldiers, Thwe was reading Portrait of a Lady and poetry that, among other things, made him wonder what a daffodil must be like. Despite being descended from a paramount leader of his people who was a ferocious critic of the follies of New Win’s crackpot policies, and although eventually turning out to be an effective orator, Thwe tried to avoid “politics.” Seeing demonstrators shot, his girlfriend disappeared, and the universities shut down by rulers who have destroyed the economy and impoverished most of its people, Khoo Thwe was forced to speak out and then to flee.
Having reached England, Thwe found the idea of individuals on different sides of a question arguing diverse positions exhilarating, joining such debate was difficult for someone trained to submit unquestioningly to authority. At a conclave of student leader before he left, he already “realised how hard it was to escape the psychology, the pathology of the regime we detested.” An education requiring him constantly to formulate what he thought about literary texts was daunting, quite beyond having to do so in another language (other than his mother-tongue, Padaung, and other than the language of his education, Burmese).
From the Land of Green Ghosts is a moving tribute to the Padaung and to the martyrs of the misrule of Burma. In contrast to another writer enamored of English literature who got to England, V. S. Naipaul, Thwe loves the land and people he left behind and celebrates them and their struggle rather than laughing at them from the perspective of the British. Whereas Naipaul is sardonic about everyone and everything in Trinidad (and, indeed, everywhere except rural England), Thwe is sometimes bemused, but more often elegiac, feeling sympathy even for the young soldiers sent to kill him. Naipaul has produced a large body of work, whereas this memoir is the first book by Khoo Thwe, but for largeness of spirit, Naipaul could not compete with Pascal Khoo Thwe.
The book contains drawings by the author, some maps, and a number of photos, all of which help readers get bearings on a particularly exotic people. The Padaung were missionized in 1930 (when a priest won a wrestling match with Thwe’s grandfather), and his family members avidly listened to BBC International (which the regime had not figured how to jam before Thwe fled). Though the military dictators tried to disappear the whole country from contact with the rest of the world, I found it wryly amusing that one of the Burman soldiers proclaimed an identification with Rambo, and one of the Karen soldiers hummed the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive” as he rescued a stranded group of student soldiers.
P.S. Pascal Khoo Thwe provides a useful perspective on another of the wars declared by the US directed at places and peoples little (or not!) understood by US strategists, the “war on drugs”:
“Government officials soon realised that they could enrich themselves by becoming unofficial agents for opium warlords, and so would destroy only a few token fields. The weapons supplied by the West were turned instead on internal enemies of the regime. The alleged fight against drugs became an excuse to attack ethnic rebels and even villagers who showed any opposition toward the government. As a result, the opium trade boomed as never before.” (p. 57)
©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray
* I’m a bit puzzled at how Burma (or Cambridge) can be considered “Pacific Rim,” in that Burma borders the Andaman Sea, though another earlier winner of the prize was Michael Ondatjee’s Anil’s Ghost, set in the Indian rather than Pacific Ocean.